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Uganda’s dance divide

Megan Murdock '14 (photo by Mark Olson)

Megan Murdock ’14, a resident of Currier House concentrating in Neurobiology, was awarded an Office for the Arts at Harvard (OFA)/Office of Postgraduate and National Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship this year to spend two months in southwestern Uganda, where she is studying traditional East African dance and learning traditional dances and movement rhythms from the local community near the Kasiisi Primary School outside Fort Portal. Murdock is a dancer, choreographer, and teacher with the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company and a dancer with the Harvard Ballet Company who co-directed a collaborative production between the companies, “Counterpoint,” on the Loeb Drama Center’s Mainstage in fall 2012. She plans to dance professionally after college.

This blog post by Murdock is the first in a series to be published this summer by recipients of 2013 Artist Development Fellowships, sponsored by the Office for the Arts and Office of Career Services.

It has become apparent throughout my first two weeks here in Uganda that the history of tribal traditional dances is much more important for the older members of the population than the children. I am focusing my attention on the Kinyenge dance of the Batooro tribe, which is the main dance of the tribe in the location where I’m staying. The children in the school all enjoy watching dance and joining in on songs, but they think of dance differently than their parents and grandparents do.

Before starting to dance or learning the song and drum beat, we talked a little bit about how and when they learned to dance and the differences in dance traditions between the older and younger generations. I spoke with a local women’s group that makes handicrafts to sell in town and sometimes performs both traditional dances and some contemporary songs for visitors to the area. They also sometimes perform in competitions where they make up songs about conservation and the environment and perform with other groups.

From the older women that I talked to in the group, I got some interesting insight into the changes that have occurred with dance over time. The children have mostly learned to dance from adults (teachers, choir master, mothers, aunts, etc.), but the adults all learned from other children. The women think that this change in learning has happened because of changes in the frequency of social gatherings and because the nature of dance has changed. The oldest women—they appear to be about 65 years old, but could be younger and look more aged because of harsh living conditions—said that when they were young there were always random social gatherings started by someone playing the drums, and people just gathered around to join in.

Currently, these gatherings don’t occur nearly as much as they used to, and the women gave two reasons for this. They said that previously, social gatherings involved a lot of alcohol but when the British came to colonize the country they introduced religion, which says that alcohol is bad, so fewer people drink now. They also said that people today are much busier and are much more focused on making money. Before, people could barter for goods and trade with each other for the things they needed, but now people need money to buy things and are focused on activities that will make a profit and they don’t make time for extra social gatherings.

The Primary Level 4 class and some Girl Guides dancing the Kinyenge Dance, the Batooro tribe's dance, without costumes (photo by Megan Murdock).

The function of traditional dance has also changed. The old women said that it used to happen at social gatherings, and people danced and learned dances because that was just what was done at the gatherings: everyone danced. However, now a lot of people learn to dance in order to compete like the Girl Guides do in country-wide competitions or to show their cultural dances at expositions showing the different cultures in the different regions of Uganda. Many people now learn to dance with the intention of performing and to become hired as dancers who will be paid for their time, rather than just dancing for fun with the community.

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